It figured to be the best birthday ever, May 10, 1955. For the past two weeks my dad has been hinting at a very special surprise for my seventh birthday. Finally, the big surprise is to be revealed on birthday afternoon. I remember the setting—my tiny bedroom at the end of the hallway, looking out onto Bailey Avenue in our upstairs apartment in Uncle Bill’s house. I open the loosely wrapped bundle handed to me by my dad, who is beaming, almost bursting out of his shirt with pride.
My face sags and shoulders slump at the first look at the worn, dry-rotted catcher’s mitt that Nippy has decided to bequeath me—a precious artifact to him, a cruel disappointment to the seven-year-old boy. Surely, this ugly catcher’s mitt, with broken leather strings, is just a tease before he leads me to the backyard where I will discover the real birthday surprise—a gleaming new candy-apple-red Schwinn with white wall tires.
It soon becomes clear that this is it. How could he do this to me—building me up for two whole weeks, hint-after-hint, to a birthday “surprise” almost too cruel to comprehend!? Still in shock as my dad begins to explain how much the tattered glove meant to him in his boyhood baseball-playing days in Coulterville, PA., angry, convulsive tears of hurt stream unbridled over my cheeks. I don’t want to hear any more about this ugly, useless object that has demolished all hope of a ‘happy birthday.’ His words enrage me more, and now my tantrum, that he had not anticipated, has made him angry and disappointed in me.
Off comes his belt. Now my rump stings as much as my heart. Like many powerful storms, this one’s length is no match for its fury. Daisy Jean has heard all the commotion and comes to my rescue after the three-strikes-and-you’re-out whipping.
That seventh birthday didn’t turn out so bad after all. Later that day my playmates, Mary Sue and Patty, showed up, along with cousins, Ricky and Billy Pearson and Bobby Campbell, and Grandma, Grand pap, a teen-aged Aunt Donna, and Bobby’s parents, Aunt Jo and Uncle Don. No more tears as I blew out the candles on the Taste-T Donut Bakery birthday cake at our dining room table. During party games, I think I took birthday privilege and peaked under the blindfold to my advantage when we played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
That ratty old baseball mitt became a fixture in my bedroom cupboard for the remainder of my boyhood. I did try using it for alley ball games occasionally, but the glove never felt like it fit my hand as well as it must have fit my dad’s. Eventually I got a more normal fielder’s glove that served me well for alley ball and occasional games of hardball at a real baseball field on Patterson Avenue.
Yet, I came to feel some kind of connection to that old mitt that Nippy had hoped would make my seventh birthday a special one. Perhaps my dad’s timing could have been better. At age seven I simply was not equipped to appreciate the meaning of a family artifact. Perhaps he erred in building up a seven-year-old’s hopes of a special birthday surprise with a fortnight of tantalizing promises.
Nonetheless, baseball connected me with my dad over the passing years as we listened to the transistor radio on the back porch with Bob Prince, Jim Woods, and Nellie King rooting unabashedly for the Buccos. A few times we even rooted for our Buccos at Forbes Field and in later years, at Three Rivers Stadium. I have never lost my interest in Pirate baseball, even though today’s game is so mercenary, with players abandoning the “home” team for millionaire contracts with freer-spending, big market teams. The ball parks Nippy knew have been replaced by a new ball park named after a corporate banking behemoth. Those changes might be as difficult for Nippy to accept as it was for the seven-year-old boy to accept the gift of the tattered baseball mitt long ago.
Looking back, I feel shame at my childish ingratitude toward my dad on that birthday afternoon 60 birthdays ago. Yet, it has proven to be an invaluable experience in my lesson book for life. I believe that birthday gift was like a seed planted that May day in 1955. Though I cannot recall when the old relic and I parted ways, that ugly glove still reminds me that real happiness does not derive from the material possessions that one accumulates—the things that money will buy. Real happiness grows out of special moments shared, and remembered, with loved ones—family and friends—when we have given something of ourselves, even if it is only a ratty and broken, old baseball glove. Maybe Nippy’s timing wasn’t so bad after all.